Each year, Pro Football Focus puts out a detailed analysis of every throw by every starting quarterback in the NFL. Kirk Cousins’s numbers are revealing on a number of levels, especially highlighting why 2019 was his best career season and why there are still some flawed areas of his game. Here are five things to learn from his numbers…
Major gains from 2018 to 2019
If you look at stats like touchdown-to-interception ratio and quarterback rating, it’s easy to see that Kirk Cousins was a better quarterback in 2019 than he was during his first season in Minnesota. A closer look at the PFF numbers reveals that he was better in important areas that don’t show up in the box score.
Cousins was worlds better from a clean pocking, grading as the 22nd ranked quarterback when he wasn’t facing pressure in ’18 and fourth best in ’19.
He went from 23rd in PFF grade on third down in ’18 to seventh in ’19 and jumped in QB rating in those spots from 92.6 to 108.0. His connection with top receiver Stefon Diggs on third downs was massively better, going from a 30% first down rate when targeting Diggs on third down to 58% and averaging 12.4 yards per attempt on those throws.
The Vikings’ quarterback was more successful on short throws with his rating on passes that traveled between 0-9 yards (which represented 49% of his passes) going from 96.8 to 101.2.
Cousins was also much better when opponents did not blitz. Last year he produced a solid 98.2 rating when he wasn’t blitzed but only averaged 6.0 yards per play. That mark increased to 7.1 yards per play and a 103.2 rating.
The takeaway: Quarterbacks generally produce similar clean-pocket numbers year to year but the huge difference in scheme and play-calling ability clearly played a role in his improvement. At Cousins’s age, it’s unlikely that he suddenly got better with a clean pocket or changed something dramatically on third down in order to find Diggs. The fact was that more open receivers translated to better play. The in-depth stats justify Mike Zimmer’s desire to go forward with the Gary Kubiak system.
The middle of the field and tight windows
But an interesting twist to the Kubiak system-Cousins relationship is that Cousins did not throw the ball in the areas where most routes were run: In the middle of the field.
Here is the PFF chart of routes vs. throws in the Annual:
There are two possible explanations for this: The routes in the middle of the field could be used to draw defenders to certain areas in order to open up other spaces on the field. For example, an underneath route could catch the attention of a safety while a deeper receiver crosses the middle of the field or streaks down the sideline with a favorable matchup.
The other explanation is that even in Cousins’s best year he still avoided risk.
In 2018, Cousins threw into tight windows on 20% of his throws, which was around league average. That number went down in 2019 to just 16% of his total throws with 57% going toward open receivers. It’s plausible that there were simply more open receivers but the middle of the field also naturally brings more dangers. Drew Brees also had a low percentage of tight-window throws but his charts of routes and throws look nearly identical. Same goes for the Raiders’ generally low-risk QB Derek Carr.
This is demonstrated in part by Cousins’s “Big-Time Throw Percentage,” which was only a little above average at 13th in the NFL despite all of his quality overall numbers. Cousins’s accuracy when a defender was “closing” in on his receiver was 8.1% lower than league average but 10.4% above average when his receiver had a “step” on the defensive back.
These numbers appear to confirm what common sense might have told you: When the scheme is working, Cousins will execute it at a very high level. When it isn’t it’s unlikely that he will force things to happen.
Strengths got stronger
Cousins has always been extremely good at avoiding very bad throws, reacting to blitzes and throwing the ball deep. He was either just as good or better in 2019 in each of these areas than during his first year with the Vikings.
He ranked fourth in percentage of negatively graded throws and had the third fewest “uncatchable” passes. Last year he was third and fourth in those categories, respectively.
Cousins’s past four years against the blitz resulted in quarterback ratings of 98.7, 109.8, 104.3 and 122.5. The highly-detailed QB always seems to have an answer when the defense sends an extra man. He only committed a turnover-worthy play on 1.9% of dropbacks against the blitz and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt.
There is some bad news on his performance against blitzes: Opponents are figuring out that it doesn’t work. The percentage of plays in which defenses send an extra rusher against Cousins has dropped from 31% in 2014 when he first began seeing action as a starter to 27% in 2016 to 22% in 2019.
This was Cousins’s best year as a deep passer and he’s always been good. He posted a 132.0 rating on “go” routes and 119.6 rating when throwing the ball in the air more than 20 yards. The league average rating on such throws is 93.7.
Overall Cousins continued to be one of the best throwers in the NFL overall, ranking fourth in accuracy percentage, hitting 63% of his passes with perfect accuracy
Same Kirk Coaster
Throughout his career, fans have always been unsure which versions of Cousins was going to show up on a given weekend. Despite his across-the-board excellent numbers in 2019, the rollercoaster game-to-game grade chart was not much different than in 2018. Last year he totaled seven games that were above average, five at or near average and four below average. In 2019 Cousins was graded above average seven times, six at or near average and two below average.
One thing we can conclude from the incredible amount of data that PFF reveals in its Annual is that there are some things about Cousins’s game that can be impacted by scheme. If the Vikings give him time to throw and open receivers to target, he will succeed. But some of his shortcomings, including bouts with inconsistency in performance — which could be largely dependent on whether the supporting cast steps up or not — probably aren’t going to disappear as we go forward. The Vikings will have to factor all of his strengths and weaknesses as they consider a contract extension.